COLUMBIA — Kathy Johnson's lawsuit against the Warren Funeral Chapel is no longer a class action.
In a hearing Monday, Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane said the lawsuit does not meet the purpose of a class-action suit: to help make the court system more efficient by avoiding multiple trials on the same facts.
Many claims arose against the funeral home in the wake of state inspections at the Columbia facility in July 2008.
Among other violations, inspectors found the unembalmed body of a woman who had died of hepatitis 10 months earlier.
The attorney general's office filed a lawsuit against the funeral home and its owners, Harold Warren Sr. and Harold Warren Jr., on July 25, 2008. The case, which is set for trial in September according to Missouri Case.net, led to an injunction that shut the funeral home's doors.
Johnson's attorney, Pete Nacy, filed the petition with a motion to certify the lawsuit as a class action.
According to the petition, Johnson was unable to locate the burial site of her mother, Beckie Harris, at Rock Bridge Cemetery in Columbia. The Warrens and Turner were unable to say definitively where Harris was buried.
On three separate occasions, Turner identified three different plots as possible locations of her mother's grave, Johnson said.
The petition alleged that many others had "suffered similar indignities, embarrassment, insult and outrage" at the hands of the Warrens.
Judge Gene Hamilton certified the lawsuit as a class action Feb. 25, 2009.
Crane's ruling Monday reversed that decision.
The Warrens' defense attorney, James Sullivan, argued against the class action because it would not make it any easier for the courts to process all the claims against Warren Funeral Chapel.
Two attorneys, Nacy and Samuel Trapp, represent the plaintiffs in the class action. Neither provided an exact number of plaintiffs in the case.
However, both the plaintiffs and the defense estimate that there are about 200 potential plaintiffs. That figure is based on the estimate that Warren Funeral Chapel performed about 40 funerals each year for five years. (The plaintiff class consists of all those who made contracts with the Warrens between Aug. 1, 2003, and Aug. 1, 2008.)
Sullivan argued that each plaintiff in the lawsuit has unique claims. Specific, individualized evidence would be required to prove each claim, he said.
For example, Johnson's claims deal with difficulties locating her mother's grave. But other plaintiffs have different allegations, such as:
- bodies being kept on Warren Funeral Chapel premises without being embalmed or refrigerated.
- decayed bodies being stored throughout the building.
- bags of internal organs being stored with bodies of other decedents.
- bodies being cremated in the same container.
To process such a variety of claims in one class-action lawsuit would require every plaintiff to testify, Sullivan said. That would be no better than holding multiple trials to handle each person's claims, he said.
"This case would be completely unmanageable as a class action," he said.
But Trapp countered that all the class-action allegations were similar. Each allegation involves the mishandling of people's bodies, he argued.
"Everybody's mishandling doesn't have to be identical," Trapp said.
Sullivan disagreed, noting that the evidence needed to prove each claim is not identical.
"Just because you have the same legal claim doesn't mean it's a class action," he said.
Sullivan also argued that the plaintiff class was defined too broadly because it included anyone who entered into a contract with Warren Funeral Chapel from Aug. 1, 2003, to Aug. 1, 2008.
"Not every single person that went to the Warren funeral home has a claim for the right of sepulcher," he said.
Crane also saw the breadth of the class as a problem.
"You can join the class without having any evidence of mishandling at all," he said.
As a result of Crane's ruling, those with claims against Warren Funeral Chapel will have to pursue them individually, Sullivan said.
After the hearing, Trapp said he had no problem with Crane's decision except that it could lead to a large number of similar cases.
"I think it is ridiculous to have to try the same case 30 to 50 times," Trapp said.
Trapp still represents a number of the plaintiffs from the class-action suit. He said he would have to consider whether he wants to file separate lawsuits for each of the them or try to include them in Johnson's existing lawsuit.
Johnson was in attendance at Monday's hearing. "It doesn't bother me," she said of the decision.
All plaintiffs in the lawsuit will now have to be notified that the class action has been decertified. Sullivan said the defense would pay for the notifications.
The Warren Funeral Chapel closed its doors July 30, 2008. The injunction in the attorney general's lawsuit extended that closure. Millard Family Investments, which owns several Central Missouri funeral homes, purchased the building in March 2009.